Inside the Plot to Kill JFK: The Secret Story of the CIA and What Really Happened in DallasThe official narrative only gets more implausible, especially when you hear the stories of these secret super-spies.
By David Talbot / Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.
December 8, 2015 The following is an excerpt from the new book The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot (Harper, 2015)
As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Hunt drew Saint and the rest of his family deeper into his disintegrating life. Saint’s beloved mother, Dorothy—an exotic beauty with her own espionage background—would die in a plane crash in the midst of the Watergate crisis, while serving as a mysterious courier for her husband. When her United Airlines flight from Washington’s Dulles Airport crashed while landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport in December 1972, Dorothy Hunt was carrying over $2 million in cash and money orders, some of which was later traced to President Nixon’s reelection campaign...
Nixon knew that Howard Hunt had played key roles in some of America’s darkest mysteries. On June 23, 1972—while discussing the Watergate break-in with H. R. Haldeman, his devoted political deputy and White House chief of staff—Nixon was taped saying, “Hunt . . . will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab, there’s a hell of a lot of things. . . . This involves these Cubans, Hunt and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”
Nixon wanted Haldeman to lean on Dick Helms, who was then CIA director, by warning him that if the spy agency did not help shut down the growing Watergate scandal, “[t]he President’s belief is that this is going to open up that whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and it’s going to make the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and is likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and we think it would be very unfortunate for the CIA and for the country at this time.”
Nixon’s ploy did not work. When Haldeman sat Helms down in his office and delivered the president’s thinly veiled threat about “the Bay of Pigs thing,” the normally icy-cool Helms exploded. “The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this!” he shouted. Nixon only succeeded in further antagonizing a very powerful Washington institution, one capable of far more deviousness than even he was.
What did Nixon mean by “the whole Bay of Pigs thing”? According to Haldeman, it was Nixon’s way of referring to the unspeakable—the Kennedy assassination. Other historians have speculated that it was shorthand for the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro. In any case, “the Bay of Pigs thing” was an apt code name—it conjured all the swampy intrigue that began leaching through the Kennedy administration after Allen Dulles and his agency suffered their humiliation in Cuba, everything the CIA wanted to keep deeply hidden. And Howard Hunt was knee-deep in much of this muck...
After his family fell apart, Saint John had gone on the road as a rock musician and drug peddler, a trip that eventually deposited him in the coastal redwoods of northern California. But by the time he reunited with his father, Saint was a sober, middle-aged, law-abiding citizen who was eager to make sense of his earlier life. He was particularly interested in talking with his father about the Kennedy assassination—which he knew his father had long been linked to in conspiracy literature.
Saint’s father had always insisted that he had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death, that he was at home in Washington the day of the assassination, not in Dallas, as many JFK researchers alleged. Hunt claimed that he was shopping for ingredients at a Chinese grocery store in Washington, to cook dinner that night with his wife, when the news bulletin about Kennedy came over the car radio. But Saint, who was in the fifth grade at the time, had no memory of his father being home that day when he was let out early from school, or later that evening. And he found his father’s cover story about cooking the Chinese meal, which Hunt told under oath at a trial related to the Kennedy assassination, absurd. “I can tell you that’s the biggest load of crap in the world,” Saint John told Rolling Stone in 2007. “My dad in the kitchen? Chopping vegetables with his wife? I’m so sorry, but that would never happen. Ever.”
His mother told Saint John, around the time of the assassination, that his father had indeed been in Dallas. The mystery of his father’s whereabouts that day would prey on Saint for years. He was determined to engage his father on the subject before it was too late.By 2003, Howard Hunt was ready to finally talk. He feared that his life was coming to an end, and he was deeply regretful that he had so little to leave his family after all they had endured. For a time, he flirted with the idea of telling all to actor Kevin Costner, who had starred in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Costner dangled a big financial reward in front of Hunt if he revealed everything he knew about Dallas, but when the money never appeared, Hunt finally dismissed the actor as a “numbskull.”
Saint John nonetheless urged his father to continue down the path of full disclosure while he was still of sound mind. He made his plea in a long letter to his father, telling him that it was time to finally reveal what he knew—he “owed it,” wrote Saint, “to himself, the Nation, and his family to leave a legacy of truth instead of doubt.”
Soon afterward, Hunt phoned his son in California and summoned him to Miami. On December 7, 2003, Saint John Hunt flew to Florida—where so much of his father’s secret life had unfolded—to hear his final testament.
Then, after making Saint John promise he would never reveal what he was about to tell him without his permission, Hunt launched into a remarkable story of the plot to kill John F. Kennedy. It was—even at this late date in Hunt’s life—still a carefully parsed tale. He clearly was not telling everything he knew—and he seemed to be downplaying his own role in the crime as well as the complicity of former CIA superiors to whom he remained loyal. He also couched much of his narrative in an oddly speculative manner, as if he were not fully certain of the exact configuration of the plot. Nonetheless, what Hunt did tell Saint John that day was stunning enough. Over the following months, the spy elaborated on his story as his health occasionally improved. At one point, Saint brought in an expert on the Kennedy assassination and Watergate—Eric Hamburg, a Los Angeles writer-producer and a former aide to Senator John Kerry—to help videotape interviews with his father.
Laura Hunt ultimately cut short her husband’s extraordinary journey of truth telling with his son. But before Hunt died in 2007, he left behind video interviews, audiotapes, and notes in his own hand—as well as a somewhat revealing memoir called American Spy. Hunt’s confessional trove amounts to a tortured effort to reveal what he knew, while still guarding his family’s sensitivities, old professional loyalties, and whatever was left of his good name. After his father died, Saint John would make a valiant effort to get Hunt’s confessions—which should have been headline news—into the hands of the major media gatekeepers. A 60 Minutes producer spent days poring over Saint John’s rich material, but he was finally forced to apologize that the story had been spiked from above. In the end, only Rolling Stone—along with a scattering of alternative media outlets—covered the story of Howard Hunt’s astonishing final statements about the crime of the century. Saint John’s own memoir of his father’s escapades and his family’s ordeal, Bond of Secrecy, was released by a small Oregon publisher and received little promotion or attention.
This was the story that Howard Hunt left behind. Sometime in 1963, Hunt said, he was invited to a meeting at one of the CIA safe houses in Miami by Frank Sturgis, a soldier of fortune who had worked under Hunt in the anti-Castro underground—a man with whom Hunt would be forever linked when they were later arrested for the Watergate break-in. Also in attendance at the Miami meeting was David Morales, another CIA veteran of the anti-Castro campaign who was well known to Hunt. Morales—a big, intimidating man who had grown up in a poor Mexican American family in Phoenix—did not fit the polished CIA profile. But the agency found a use for “El Indio”—as Morales, with his strong indigenous features, was known by his colleagues.
“Dave Morales did dirty work for the agency,” according to Wayne Smith, a diplomat who worked alongside Morales in the U.S. embassy in Havana before Castro took power. “If he were in the mob, he’d be called a hit man.”
Thomas Clines, a colleague of Morales’s in the CIA’s Miami station, was more complimentary in his description, but it amounted to the same thing: “We all admired the hell out of the guy. He drank like crazy, but he was bright as hell. He could fool people into thinking he was stupid by acting stupid, but he knew about cultural things all over the world. People were afraid of him. He was big and aggressive, and he had this mystique. Stories about him permeated the agency. If the agency needed someone action-oriented, he was at the top of the list. If the U.S. government as a matter of policy needed someone or something neutralized, Dave would do it, including things that were repugnant to a lot of people...”
At the secret Miami meeting, Morales told Hunt that he had been recruited for an “off-the-board” operation by Bill Harvey, with whom El Indio had worked closely on the ZR/Rifle project to kill Castro. The aim of this “off-the-board” operation, it soon became clear, was to assassinate President Kennedy. Morales and Sturgis referred to the president’s planned demise as “the big event.” ...
To Morales, Kennedy was “that no good son of a bitch motherfucker” who was responsible for the deaths of the men he had trained for the Bay of Pigs mission. “We took care of that son of a bitch, didn’t we?” Morales told his attorney, Robert Walton, in 1973, after an evening of drinking loosened the CIA hit man’s tongue. It was one more confession that the media ignored, even after it was reported by one of their own, Gaeton Fonzi, a Philadelphia investigative journalist who, after going to work for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, unearthed some of the most important information related to the Kennedy case.